Anne Bronte, marriage and divorce, teachings of christ, tenant of wildfell hall, universal salvation
Quotes, Scriptures and Questions for Book Club Study
“‘But, Helen!’ I began in a soft, low tone, not daring to raise my eyes to her face – ‘that man is not your husband: in the sight of Heaven he has forfeited all claim to – ‘ She seized my arm with a grasp of startling energy.” –The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
-“I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel. Malachi 2:16
-Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:8-9
-Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Romans 13:1
-The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” Hosea 3:1
Questions for Discussion
1. Since Helen can’t legally divorce her husband, what is Gilbert suggesting in the above quote? How would such behaviour contradict the teachings of Christ?
2. How are Brontë’s beliefs about divorce counter-cultural today? Why would society find them radical and oppressive?
3. If Brontë’s beliefs about divorce find their source in Christ’s teachings, how important then is the protection of the marital institution to Christ and why would he be so stringent about allowances for the dissolution of marriage?
4. How is Arthur Huntingdon like Hosea’s wife in the Bible? What is the broader theology of Hosea’s marriage?
“‘I will give my whole heart and soul to my Maker if I can,’ I answered, ‘and not one atom more of it to you than He allows. What are you, sir, that you should set yourself up as a god, and presume to dispute possession of my heart with Him to whom I owe all I have and all I am, every blessing I ever did or can enjoy – and yourself among the rest.'” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
-“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3
-Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment.” Matthew 22:37
-Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 2 Cor. 6:14
1. Helen doesn’t heed her aunt’s warning about marrying a man without principles and good sense. She overlooks Arthur’s faults and determines to see the best in him. Once struck with the reality of marriage, she believes she can try and reform him with her influence. Is such a pursuit of a husband (or wife) Biblical? What does the Bible have to say about choosing a spouse?
2. Since Arthur is not following the Lord, Arthur and Helen have an “unequally yoked” marriage. How does the novel show the consequences of such a union?
3. Why does God not desire “unequally yoked” marriages? What are the larger theological implications of such an understanding of marriage? Why did God create marriage?
4. Can a spouse ever be justifiably jealous of his or her spouse’s devotion to Christ?
“The novel’s espousal of universal salvation was, as Anne explained in a letter, something which she had ‘cherished…from my very childhood – with the trembling hope at first, and afterwards with a firm and glad conviction of its truth. I drew it secretly from my own heart and from the Word of God before I knew that any other held it.'”
-from the Introduction to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wordsworth Classics edition
-For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Col. 1:19
-“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:46
1. Anne says her belief that all sinners will gain heaven, but those who are not saved will suffer temporarily in purgatory, is scriptural. What verses might she refer to to support such a viewpoint? What verses could you use against it? How would you explain verses that seem to suggest universal salvation, such as Col. 1:19?
2. Why might Brontë – or anyone – desire that universal salvation be true? What would it suggest about the character of God?
3. Why do you think purgatory (a temporary place of suffering) is not sufficient for God’s wrath? Why eternal separation?
Rounding out the discussion: Does the metaphor of marriage and divorce help illuminate the issue of salvation and damnation, or complicate it? How/why?
Thank you for this post. These are precisely the points that troubled me when I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall many years ago.
It’s surprising how many famous Victorian writers believed in universal salvation (Tennyson, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll…). If I remember rightly, even Charlotte Brontë favoured the idea briefly, at the time when she wrote Shirley (in a state of profound emotional upheaval, while her sisters Emily and Anne were dying). But it’s a very long time since I read Shirley, so I could be altogether wrong about that.
Robert Browning too was attracted by the idea, but as you’d expect, he keeps it more tightly in focus and uses it dramatically rather than just endorsing it. At one point in The Ring and the Book, the Pope hopes that the sinner will “see the truth” at the moment of death “and be saved”; yet at another point, he hopes that God “unmakes but to remake the soul” after death (no indication whether this is contingent on the sinner having seen the truth). The whole speech gives me the impression of a character peering hesitantly into the darkness, and fluctuating doubtfully from one thought to another. As in all Browning’s dramatic monologues, the reader is invited to ponder just how far the speaker is correct–and if he isn’t correct, just where & how he has gone off the rails.
I’m not sure about this next one, but there may be another interesting dramatic use of the idea in Mrs Oliphant’s 1895 novel Dies Irae. Near its outset, the unenlightened narrator (who hasn’t yet really learned to love her neighbour) says, “I can believe in no hell… for without it there could be no heaven…. I could not be happy in the highest heaven if I knew there was one poor soul imprisoned in a hell.” What the narrator fails to grasp is that she herself is “a soul in prison” and hasn’t yet found her way out of it. But I may be misunderstanding this story. I often feel that my mind isn’t quite tuned to Mrs Oliphant’s wavelength.
Curiously, I’ve hardly ever seen the idea of universal salvation in earlier poets, novelists, or dramatists. Yes, there are earlier writers who scoff at the notion of eternal punishment–but they also scoff at God, salvation through Christ, eternal life, etc. (e.g. Byron in his Vision of Judgment: “I may be damn’d for hoping no one else may e’er be so”). Then suddenly in the 19th century we find lots of writers (not just one or two, but many) who accept the existence of God, salvation through Christ, eternal life, etc., and yet balk at eternal punishment. If it troubled so many Victorian believers, why didn’t it trouble earlier believers? I don’t recall any thought of universal salvation (even as a concept) in Langland, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Pope, Samuel Johnson…. Very strange.
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